Medicine: Round-Trip Journeys to the Afterworld
Researchers allow pigs and dogs to bleed to death, fill their bodies with cold saline solution, and then bring the dead animals back to life a few hours later. The ability to switch living beings off and then on again could revolutionize medicine -- especially treatment of bleeding victims or heart-attack patients.
A patient is delivered by helicopter to Berlin's Accident Hospital: More seriously wounded patients might survive if they were put into a state of suspended animation before they got transported.
First the heart begins to beat, and then the pig starts breathing. Finally, it stands up and looks curiously at the man in the lab coat standing outside its cage.
"This animal was dead for several hours," says Hasan Alam, 39, a surgeon at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital. "But we brought it back. And now it's here again."
The same magic forces seem to be at work in the animal research facility of the General Hospital of the City of Vienna. Pigs are suddenly opening their eyes after their hearts were stopped with electric shocks and they lay dead for half an hour. "The miracle," says Wilhelm Behringer, 39, a physician specializing in emergency medicine, "is that the animals return to life without neurological damage."
In the last few years, the two research groups have sent a hundred pigs on round-trip journeys into the afterworld, using variations on the same trick in each case. The physicians flood the animals' bodies with several liters of a saline solution that's been cooled to about two degrees C (36° F). This puts the animals into a mysterious state of suspended animation that prevents the cells of their lifeless bodies from dying off. None of the animals feel pain, because the experiments are done under full anesthesia.
Until now, we've left it to science fiction writers to describe what it might be like to take a break from life and then return at some point in the future. Only in science fiction can an astronaut sink into a Rip van Winkle-like sleep that lasts centuries, only to wake up -- wrinkle-free -- in some distant time or galaxy. And only in science fiction can people with incurable diseases have themselves placed into suspended animation until science catches up and discovers a cure.
Dozens of people have felt such a tremendous yearning for a second life that they spent a lot of money to have their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen after death. Awaiting resurrection, their heads and bodies float in tanks in Arizona and California operated by companies that specialize in this practice.
The spectacular animal experiments performed in Boston and Vienna make these utopias seem not quite so bizarre. The researchers don't talk in terms of years, but they're convinced -- for the first time -- that sending humans into an hours-long deathly sleep will be possible.
"It may sound futuristic, but we now have the ability to deliberately bring the body to a standstill," explains Hasan Alam, who recently moved his laboratory from Maryland to Massachusetts so that he could take advantage of fresh research funding to move ahead with his project.
Alam hasn't even unpacked his moving boxes yet. Instead, he prefers to sit in his corner office, wearing a dark blue suit, interviewing the kinds of ambitious doctors and scientists he needs to work on his project.
"We are preparing initial clinical trials with human beings," explains Alam. He isn't the only one conducting this kind of research. In hospitals in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Houston, other doctors are pursuing similar plans to essentially switch off the human body and then switch it on again. The data from these experiments will then be included in a joint analysis.
The candidates Professor Alam envisions for these trips to death and back are people who are admitted to emergency rooms with the most serious of gunshot wounds or injuries from accidents. Although their wounds may be relatively easy to suture, "surgeons need time," says Alam. He says that 19 of such patients out of 20 bleed to death before emergency doctors can finish their work.
But, as Alam and his associates hope, deliberately placing the dying bodies into a state of suspended animation can provide precious time needed to bring the victims to the hospital and perform surgery.
This is the scenario they envision: Instead of following the usual procedure of pumping banked blood into a trauma patient, emergency physicians allow the patient to bleed to death within minutes while recapturing the patient's blood. At the same time, the patient is quickly filled up with a cold saline solution. Only when his wounds have been sutured is the patient revived by returning his own warm blood to his veins and arteries.
The Boston group plans to try this procedure in human subjects within the next 12 to 18 months. Hasan Alam believes the relevant ethics commission will approve his request, because the first of these experiments would be performed on injured patients who normally couldn't be saved with conventional emergency medicine.
The idea that in certain situations it can be a good idea to refrigerate a human being goes back to Peter Safar, a doctor who was born in Vienna and died in 2003, at the age of 79. Safar was interested in developing a new method of emergency medical care for the US military. In the Vietnam War, many GIs suffered serious wounds in battle and lost so much blood that they went into cardiac arrest. But with a little more time, many could have been taken to field hospitals and stitched back together.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Safar sent dogs into a state he called "suspended animation." To do this, he allowed the dogs to bleed to death and then flushed ice-cold saline solution into their aortas through a tube (at a rate of one to two liters a minute). Within a few minutes, the dogs' body temperatures plunged to 10° C (50° F). The pallid canines were dead, at least according to the laws of medicine: no heartbeat, no breathing, no brain activity.
The dogs' blood was collected, kept warm, enriched with oxygen and later pumped back into their bodies. Then the white-haired professor used mild electric shocks to bring the lifeless creatures back to life. After Safar's death, his colleagues fine-tuned the process by adding tiny amounts of sugar to the cold saline solution. This, the Pittsburgh researchers announced in June, enables them to revive the dogs after as long as three hours.
- Part 1: Round-Trip Journeys to the Afterworld
- Part 2: NEXT PAGE: Breaking the rules of biology
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